Wellness: Working its way into our environments

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This post is the second in a three-part series about changing perceptions around health and wellness in the U.S. The series will explore a variety of issues: How changing ideas about wellness are impacting the lifestyle choices of individuals (part 1), the design of our environments (part 2), and the development and design of products (part 3). We hope you’ll return in early February for the rest of the series and share your thoughts and ideas along the way!

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Michelle Maloney heads to work each day prepared to work her body as well as her mind.

That’s not such a surprising thing, considering where Michelle works—at Human Kinetics, the leading publisher of information about physical activity.

“Working at Human Kinetics has had a huge influence on how I think of my health,” says Michelle (MS, MBA, CPT), an acquisitions editor who joined the company a decade ago.

The Human Kinetics headquarters, in Champaign, IL, has a fitness center with locker rooms, a cafeteria that offers healthy meal options, and a Wellness Committee responsible for planning lunch-and-learn sessions, fitness demonstrations, and an annual health fair. When the weather warms up, employees can hit the tennis and basketball courts or the walking trail that circles them.

But even companies that aren’t inherently focused on wellness are becoming more and more likely to do whatever they can to encourage a healthy corporate culture, Michelle says.

“There is definitely more of a focus on the links between behaviors and health. Employers are really starting to drive these changes. They have to—it’s a matter of costs.”

Most employers are well aware of the ways wellness impacts their bottom line. Not only do the expected negative costs of employee sick days and health insurance exist, but there’s a growing awareness of the fact that hiring people who are well in a holistic way can also yield positive results in terms of efficiency and innovation. A body that’s functioning properly—with optimum respiratory, circulatory, and digestive function—leads to a mind that functions at its best, according Barbara Hoogenboom a physical therapist and professor at Grand Valley State University (EdD, PT, SCS, ATC).

While it’s great for workplaces to include fitness facilities (or even climbing walls!) when they’re able, even the general design of work environments can play an essential role in encouraging movement throughout the day, says izzy+ founder Chuck Saylor.

“The workplace is no longer about sticking people in a cube, adding some lumbar support, and telling them to not move until lunch,” says Saylor. “Regular movement throughout the day is essential to wellbeing, and the best workplaces are making changes to encourage more movement.”

For instance, creating appealing second and third spaces—meeting areas and nooks furnished for comfort and productivity—compels people to get up and leave their desks for a refreshing change of scene, rather than staying in one place all day.

This approach to design—thinking about how design can best encourage people to move— has become so pervasive that it even has a name: Active Design. (Joan Blumenfeld of Perkins+Will, perhaps the leading expert in the field, has written extensively about Active Design, such as in this post.)

Designing cities that are more bikeable and walkable, and that offer more appealing public destinations, is also a part of this broad cultural movement. Working, living, and playing in environments that encourage us to move achieves what experts are now saying is essential to wellness: regular movement throughout our days. In other words, even a daily trip to the gym won’t do the trick on its own, as a recent Here & Now public radio report explains:

SACHA PFEIFFER: It seems like the reality here is that you can’t think of a certain part of your day as being your exercise time and then everything else being everything else. It has to be woven in more throughout.

ALLISON AUBREY: That’s right. Sort of a mindset shift, if you will. I mean, if you want to think about the practical advice for building in the daily activity, you’d think about things like, you know, instead of sending an email to that colleague, walk down the hall and talk to them.

As a matter of fact, Allison Aubrey’s example brings to mind yet another benefit to getting up and moving around the workplace: better communication and more collaboration with colleagues.

So are you feeling inspired to get moving? Great! We’d love to hear how you engineer more movement into your day.

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Above: Climbing-wall-meets-coworking-space at Brooklyn Boulders Somerville (photo by aaditya bharadwaj)
Below: Bike-sharing programs in many cities encourage alternatives to the taxi or bus (photo by Jonny Brownbill)

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5 lessons from the classroom—for the workplace

7403731050_9a1ee480de_zPhoto by audiolucistore

There’s no doubt that today’s school designs are taking many cues from today’s workplaces. But are there also important lessons we can learn from teachers and students, about work? We think there are!

For starters, here are five truths great teachers know that translate to the workplace. Once you get going down this road, you’ll probably think of even more. Share them with us in the comments!

1. Different people are, well, different.

Teachers have long understood that different kids learn in different ways. Most researchers refer to three different learning styles: Visual, kinesthetic, and auditory.

So what makes us think that we outgrow our natural learning styles when we become adults? Or that all adults work best in the same exact way? Workplaces, just like classrooms, need to consider different learners when designing their spaces—especially kinesthetic learners who need movement for their brains to function at their best.

For more teaching tips for all three types of learners, check out this post.

2. Energy is a positive thing—it shouldn’t be squelched.

Teachers know better than anyone that there are certain children who have trouble sitting still. And we all know there are certain times of day when it’s hard for almost anyone to sit still. Just reading the following description of a traditional classroom format is enough to make many (if not most) of us fidget and squirm:

Peek into most American classrooms and you will see desks in rows, teachers pleading with students to stay in their seats and refrain from talking to their neighbors. Marks for good behavior are rewarded to the students who are proficient at sitting still for long periods of time.” (The Atlantic)

But today’s best teachers, like Dawn Casey-Rowe who wrote the Edudemic post “Avoiding Back to School Brainfreeze,” know it’s possible to harness all that that energy rather than fight it:

By planning active classes, the can’t-sit-stills use their energy and add to the class…. Positive energy can be harnessed into learning.” (Or working!)

3. Spaces have the power to promote engagement.

Educational research shows that how the classroom is designed, and how much freedom children have within that space, can make all the difference in student engagement, which can make all the difference in student success.

In fact, according to a FastCoDesign article, research found that “classroom design could be attributed to a 25% impact, positive or negative, on a student’s progress over the course of an academic year.” 

Workplaces should take a cue from the research and consider how the design of our workspaces might be impacting engagement—and success—at work.

4. Offering choices increases ownership.

The link between “ownership” and “learning” is often overlooked, but it’s important, as Annie Murphy Paul explains in her post “Designing the classroom to enhance learning.”

“Design features that allowed pupils to feel a sense of ownership towards their classroom also helped them to learn…. Pupils benefited from a range of activity zones within a single classroom, allowing different types of learning to take place at the same time.”

In workplaces, offering a variety of choices of where to work is becoming increasingly important. That sense of choice and ownership impacts people in a variety of ways, from physical wellness and concentration to collaboration.

Another recent article at the website Edudemic encourages teachers to ask questions like these when they’re arranging furniture and setting up their classrooms:

“Is your management style and space designed to keep students quiet and in their place, or does it give permission and ownership to the students? What choices do students have about where and how they work? Do you want your students to feel free, creative and enabled? Or, structured, restricted and rule-bound?”

Those same questions might be good ones to ask within the workplace, as well—just read the above paragraph again, replacing “students” with “employees.”

5. Movement is the key to health—and learning.

“Give students the chance to get out of their seats. Movement does wonders for the brain!” says a fifth grade teacher in an Edudemic article about engaging students in the classroom. 

“Movement is the key to learning,” another article explains. “Students cannot sit still for very long before the blood and oxygen flow to their brains significantly slows down, thereby slowing down the learning process.”

And a 2008 study found that many children actually need to move to focus during a complicated mental task.

As we grow into adulthood, we definitely get better at sitting still, thanks to cultural norms and our slowing metabolisms. But that doesn’t mean we are completely different creatures than we were as school children. We still think and learn in different ways; we still have energy that can be channeled for good; we still like having options and ownership; and the spaces we spend most of our days in still impact our bodies and minds, for better or worse.

Most importantly, our bodies still function in the same general ways: Movement increases blood flow, which sharpens your mind—whether you’re five or 50, in a classroom or a workplace.

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Workplace design: Happy mediums for happy people

Everyone seems to have an opinion when it comes to workplace design. Some are big fans of the open plan, while others long to carve out their own space (ideally with a door they can close!). Some love the creative buzz and serendipitous collaboration that’s a result of everyone being in the mix together, but others fight against the distractions in desperate attempts to protect their productivity.

Not surprisingly, much has been written about today’s workplace design, and its impact on everything from innovation and collaboration to productivity. One recent study suggests that “ambient background noise or buzz of conversation in public places”—like coffee shops—”can fuel creativity.” Other articles, like this one about brainstorming, say that the unplanned conversations and debates that happen when people randomly cross paths are more effective than scheduled sessions (which means architecture and office layout play an important role). At izzy+, we have always believed that people are “Better Together,” and that workplace design plays an important role in the Better Together equation.

But what about when “ambient background noise” becomes overly distracting noise, that stunts productivity? And then there’s the reality of introverts in the workplace. Many people need alone-time and a focused space more than they need buzz and impromptu encounters. (The new book Quiet: The Power of Introverts addresses in great depth the needs and value of introverts in the workplace.)

With so many needs, pushing and pulling from all directions, it’s easy to wonder if a work environment that’s ideal for everyone is even possible.

Luckily, many workplace psychologists and designers (including izzy+!) believe it is! One recent New York Times article suggests that the best workplace design incorporates something for everyone. That doesn’t mean some people get cubicles, others get private offices and others get desks in open-plan spaces, according to their set-in-stone preferences. Rather, it’s design that assumes each individual has different needs at different times, depending on their project, task, and mood. It’s design that’s flexible, adaptable, and offers a variety of options.

“There is such a thing as a workspace that allows you to easily work near your team one moment, to shift into a cross-disciplinary space, and then later to unplug and find a solitary, quiet spot for some focused, kick-butt work,” says Brandon Reame, Market Development Strategist at izzy+. “The key is making sure your people have the technology and tools they need to be mobile, and then incorporating ‘third spaces’ into the workspace design. Make sure all of the things that are appealing about working in the buzz of a Starbucks are available for people who want it at work, where ideas can cross pollinate in important ways.”

What do you think? Which design elements and social factors make for a perfect work environment? Is it possible for workspaces to incorporate “something for everyone?”

Pictured above: The Nemo Enclave—a ‘third space’ for impromptu meetings or solo work that calls for a change of scene

The shift away from teaching and managing (toward something more inspiring)

Quick: Think back to your favorite teachers or professors. What made them so great?

We asked this question recently on Facebook and Twitter. Here’s some of what people said:

– “openness to the ideas of others”

– “more interested in posing interesting questions than handing out answers”

– “encouraging, challenging, motivated and inspired”

– “caring, fun, motivating”

– “sense of humor and sardonic wit”

– “believed in me more than I believed in myself”

– “challenging projects that were quick and unique”

– “he lives the story, constantly challenges the norm, and believes students can accomplish anything”

A variety of views are represented, but there is a red thread to be teased out: Great teachers seem to be characterized by interaction with their students, not authority over them.

That’s exactly what izzy+ founder and CEO Chuck Saylor remembers about his favorite teachers, and it’s exactly why he thinks we need to reconsider the label “teacher” altogether.

“I’m not sure I believe in the idea of any one person ‘teaching’ people anything and then walking out of the room,” says Saylor. “It doesn’t fit with what learning means in the 21st century. The era of expertise is over.”

The Move From One-Directional To Multi-Directional Learning

More and more, the focus is shifting away from the teaching and toward the learning—in other words, away from an idea of a knowledge center or authority. The same sort of shift needs to happen in the workplace, where Saylor has a similar aversion to the word “manager.” Teaching and managing are one-directional, Saylor explains, while learning and growing are multi-directional.

“It’s not about managing people, it’s about collaborating with them, just like it’s not about teaching people, it’s about learning and growing together. It’s about coaching, mentoring, interaction, and shared experiences. This translates all the way up through life, not just in school. We have to shift our focus and get it right.”

The Role Of Space Design In Learning

One of the most important places to begin this shift is in the design of spaces for learning, working, and meeting. Environments that are set up to allow and even encourage interaction are key to increasing a transparent sharing of ideas and, ultimately, to developing intelligence.

“The more we find ourselves in places that allow us to share knowledge and ideas, the more our understanding grows,” Saylor says. “We are scalable—our minds are scalable. The growth is directly proportional to how much we interact and exchange information with others.”

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For more information around these ideas, Chuck Saylor recommends the book Multipliers: How the Best Leaders Make Everyone Smarter, by Liz Wiseman. The book’s premise is that “multipliers” are leaders who inspire and stretch others, making them smarter and more capable. Being this kind of leader (or teacher), Wiseman says, involves disciplines like optimizing talent, creating intensity, extending challenges, encouraging debate, and instilling ownership. In other words, it involves inspiring and engaging people, not managing them.

The Dewey 6-Top table by Fixtures (above) prompts interaction and brings people closer together around ideas—in learning settings as well as workplaces.

Many of our concept pieces, like the Nemo bar and arbor pictured above, are all about gathering people in casual “third spaces,” whether they’re working independently or having impromptu meetings and conversations.